college application essay

How to Answer Prompt 4 for the Common App

for your College Application Essay

Prompt 4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

You almost can’t go wrong if you pick this prompt to write your college application essay for The Common Application.

It sets you up perfectly to tell an engaging story, which makes the best personal statement-style essays.

If you read through the lines, this prompt breaks down to a simple formula:

Find a problem you faced or are still facing, share what you have done to deal with it, and then go on to explain what you learned in the process and why it mattered. That’s it!

This might be the only time in your life that you’re happy you had problems.

The authors of this prompt try to help you by offering some type of sample problems you could write about: an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma. But these are just some suggestions.

Their main point is that your problem can be “anything” that mattered to you.

HINT: It’s not necessary, but if your problem (or the personal quality you used to deal with it) relates to one of your current and future academic interests, that could make your essay more relevant and effective to college admissions officers.


college application essay

Also, when they say, “no matter the scale,” the message is that this problem can be big or small.

In other words, it doesn’t have to have been a catastrophic life event. But if you did face a crisis in your life, this could make an excellent essay, too. You get to pick.

The beauty of this prompt is that if you write about a problem, you almost can’t help include some type of story.

Think back to English class. Remember the two things you need to make a story?

A character and a conflict. In these essays, since you write about yourself, you are the “character.”

And the “conflict” is the problem you faced or are facing.

Remember that conflicts (problems) can come from many different places–from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something bad happened to you.) 

To put it simply, a conflict is just another word for a problem. Problems come in all forms. They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too. (HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)

Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, accident, a deficiency, etc.


college application essay


Some variations of problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…

Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!

(If you want help making sure your problem was or is “significant” to you, start by Finding Your Defining Qualities.)

Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps to share it in a narrative (storytelling) essay format:

1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a specific example of your problem. Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact.  Include the 5Ws–who, what, when, where and why!

Stick to one or two paragraphs. Include a snippet of dialogue. These mini-stories from real life are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.

2. Background the history of this problem (when did it start, why/how did it happen or get this way.) Give it some context. “It all started back when…”

3. Talk about how you dealt with that problem. What you did about it. Describe the steps you took to handle it.

4. VERY IMPORTANT: Analyze and reflect on that problem, and your response. How did you think about it? How did you feel? Did handling it change you in any way or how you think about things? Share your thoughts on the good and the bad.

This is how and where you can “explain its (the problem’s) significance to you.”

5. What did you learn from dealing with that problem–about yourself, others or life in general? Anything good come out of it? Did you develop or demonstrate a core quality–determination, problem-solving, creativity, passion, patience, respect…–in the process?

Talk about that. This is your chance to develop more “its significance to you” in your essay.

6. To wrap it up, update the reader on the current status of that initial problem you shared in the introduction. You don’t necessarily have had to solve it. Just explain briefly how things are going for you now, today.

You could also give examples of how you have applied the life lesson(s) you learned in other parts of your life.

7. End by projecting into your future. Go ahead and share your goals and dreams as they relate to what you have learned about yourself.

If you can think of one, end with a “kicker,” which is a memorable last line that can show that you are witty, funny, passionate or don’t take yourself too seriously.

This is just a sample outline for a classic narrative-style essay to help you get started. You don’t need to stick to every step, and feel free to take your essay in whatever direction you want. Just remember that the point is to reveal how you think, what you care about and how your learn.

It’s called your “intellectual vitality,” and colleges love to see it in all shapes and sizes.

Check out this sample narrative essay. Can you tell what his “problem” was, and the steps he took to deal with it, and what he learned?

Good luck with your own problems. This may be the only time in your life that you are glad to have them! ; )

In case you don’t have them all, here are all five prompts for The Common Application for 2015-16:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

NOTE: Please ignore the comments at the bottom before April 1, 2015, since they were in response to an old prompt 4 which has been replaced with the current one. Comments posted after this date will be relevant. Thanks!